I would like to remember the books I read or listened to last year and share my impressions. Yes, listened to. You can listen to mp3 recordings of the books you otherwise don’t have the time to sit down and read. You can listen to them in the car during your daily commute or through a headset as you jog round to keep fit. www.librivox.org is an amazing repository of great world literature. Of course, you can buy digital audiobooks at www.amazon.com and listen on your phone, tablet or other devices.
In one’s readings, one comes across countless references to names of authors long gone. One is curious about these illustrious thinkers and writers whose words and ideas have continued to impress people for decades, centuries and millennia. You make a mental list of books to be read which you tick off as you get around to finally experiencing them in the original. This year, I managed to check off a couple of such titles. A couple contemporary classics also managed to lure me into opening their pages.
Again, these are not scholarly reviews; they are just a reader’s impressions.
Edward Gibbon. Adam Smith. Friedrich Nietzsche. Pliny the Elder. Charles Darwin. Jalaluddin as-Suyuti.
Malcolm Gladwell. Pauline Chen. Leslie Hazleton. Barnaby Rogerson. Graham E. Fuller. Mark Pendergrast. Eula Bliss. William Hardy McNeill. Carolyn Johnston. Sadakat Kadri.
I have shared numerous passages from these books on my Facebook wall in the past 12 months and commented on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra some months ago.
Let’s start with Nietzsche.
Thus Spake Zarathustra
This is a book that has been on my reading list forever. I only came around to reading it recently. OK, not quite. I didn’t hold a bound sheaf of papers containing the best-known work of Friedrich Nietzsche in my hands. It was read to me in different voices including a heavily accented not nearly amusing South Asian voice. It was a librivox recording. It is more befitting to hear it recited, rather than read silently as we would normally read fiction or philosophy or a textbook, for TSZ is closer to poetry than prose. After serenading myself for a couple of weeks alone in my car as I shuttled between Abuja and Zaria, I came to the conclusion that Nietzsche was probably already insane by the time he wrote the book (he indeed died with syphilitic insanity). How else to explain the ineffably lofty language and flight of ideas? And the occasional delicious word salads? The sheer profundity of thought? The pithy turn of phrase? Every sentence is a quotable piece of aphorism. It is such an unexampled blend of poetry, fiction and philosophy. Are they not all redolent of the proverbial thin line between madness and genius? We will never be able to draw a definite line between what Nietzsche wrote before and after he had become clinically insane. I would not recommend Nietzsche to a believer struggling to strengthen his faith. Neither TSZ nor any of his other works. It should only be perused after the rock of faith has weathered all storms of doubt and remains firmly fixed in place. Not the ardent dogmatic faith of the philosophically naïve.
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life).
In this worldview-changing work, Charles Darwin comes across as a conscientious scientist who is led in the direction his data seems to be pointing to. He is always ready to test his idea against evidence he has contributed a great deal to amass. He is always alive to the criticisms of his opponents. In fact, substantial parts of the book are carefully considered responses to objections raised by his opponents. He pays attention to presenting his arguments clearly and with style. I found myself going over some passages more than once. Mr. Darwin writes not as a philosopher but as a scientist. He acknowledges the tentative nature of some of his conclusions. If he has faith in anything, it is the power of carefully examined evidence to shed light on life and nature. Contrary to what many people think, Darwin is not concerned in this book with the ultimate provenance of life – a philosophical problem – but, as proclaimed in the title, the origin of species which are specific, obviously modified forms of life – a proper scientific subject.
Today, we are all tainted with Darwin’s ‘dangerous idea’. Our manner of thinking and talking assumes the fact of evolution. As a medical microbiologist, I know that harmless organisms can acquire virulence, antibiotic-susceptible bugs can become resistant, and viruses hitherto affecting only lower animals can suddenly cross over to humans. Evidence abounds that species do acquire new genetically determined properties. Species do change. In microbiology and medicine, we now talk about ‘selection pressure’ without sparing a moment’s thought for whence the idea came. Many processes and phenomena in the biological sciences and medicine make sense only in terms of evolution, it seems.
I recently bought an illustrated animals book for my son who is fascinated with animals and loves to read. On page 4, it states that some scientists think primates and humans are descended from rodents. With the retreat of believers into the security of religious certainties and dogmas as a rampart against the unrelenting march of evolutionary biology, we must be prepared for the inevitable poser from our children: Daddy, did God create us as described in the scriptures or did we evolve from lower forms of life as we were told by our teacher in school?
Considering that the gene had not been discovered when the Origin of Species was written, I recommend, after reading it, to follow up with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene which updates Darwin’s seminal work in many ways for the popular audience, the non-specialist reader.
Along this line, I would like to read Darwin’s The Descent of Man next.
The Origin is available for almost nothing at amazon.com.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Published between 1776 and 1788 in the Enlightenment era, The Decline and Fall, Edward Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire, is both great literature and great historiography. Great literature: his lively and ornamental style, his delicious prose peppered with irony, his sneering wit. Great historiography: his mastery of sources, his reconstruction of past events flying on the wings of analysis and insight beyond mere tedious chronicling. The depth and breadth of his erudition are just unbelievable.
As the title indicates, it is not the story of the empire from its founding to its demise. It is a narrative that starts in the 2nd century of the Christian era in the Age of the Antonines, sweeps through the reign of emperors (tyrants and sages, all sorts), intertwining with the history of the Christian Church, makes detours into Gaul, Germany and other barbarian territories, Africa, Persia and Arabia as it details the schism in Empire and Church, and ends in the 15th century when what used to be the Roman Empire had fragmented irretrievably into smaller empires, kingdoms, principalities and city-states.
On whose side is Gibbon in this great history? Despite his obvious fascination with the glories of magnificent Rome, he sides only with human civilization against nation, religion or race. He chastises the Christians for going back to image worship after an initial aversion of the early church to all forms of idolatry. And he controversially apportions to the Church a bit of the blame for the decline of the splendor that was Rome. In the passages where he delves into ecclesiastical history and heresies, he displays a profound mastery of the fascinating intricacies. It is interesting that many of the theological questions the Christians grappled with also exercised the early Muslims. And indeed, Gibbon makes several comparisons of the rise and fortunes of Islam and Christianity. He himself had been Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Protestant again at different stages of his life but by the time he came to write the Decline and Fall, he had most probably lost his Christian faith altogether.
Since the publication of the book, historians have examined his ascribing the decline to Christianity and, these days, the thesis is almost untenable.
The three chapters he devotes to the history of the early Islamic conquests are based largely on secondary sources as the great historian of Rome knew neither Arabic nor Syriac but he gives a good account as objectively as his circumstances permitted. He dismisses the historical canard that the conquering Arabs burnt down the famous library at Alexandria.
When you get to read the six volumes of this monument of history, make sure you check out the end notes – trust me – they are as edifying as the main text.
This is easily the most remarkable book I read in 2017.
On Natural History by Pliny the Elder
Completed and dedicated to Titus Vespasian circa 77 AD, in the days when the term ‘natural history’ applied broadly to the study of everything in nature, Historia Naturalis, is a most ambitious encyclopaedia that contains in 37 books ‘all that was known’ in Cosmology, Astronomy, Meteorology, Geography, Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Agriculture, Geology, Art, Medicinal Remedies etc
According to him, he collected his material on 20,000 matters from 100 authors – mainly Roman and Greek – and added his own observations. He cites, among others, Cato, Marcus Varro, Empedocles, Aristotle, Aristomachus Virgil, Democritus, Fabiano, Hippocrates, and Theophrastus.
Much of the material in this book is of no utility to a modern reader. An extreme example is a part he devotes to Historical Geography, where, page after boring page, he mentions hundreds of names of cities that no longer exist and are probably of no consequence. I almost stopped reading at that point.
For me, patiently going through this behemoth of a book – the longest I have ever read from beginning to end – shows how much our knowledge of nature has been transformed in two millennia of curiosity. For a lot of what constituted scientific knowledge in those days now sounds so fabulous, even hilarious.
I am sure doctors and pharmacists will find so much amusement in the numerous healing properties and specific remedies ascribed to radish, garlic, parsley, wine, and honey in those days. That is if they are not utterly scandalized.
Even with the state of scientific knowledge in those days, Gaius Plinius Secundus still comes across as probably the most fantastically credulous philosopher in the history of the world. For he reports many weird, prodigious or fantastic things as if they were facts. The presence of legends and folklore in this work happily helps to ameliorate the tedium of the excruciating details of the descriptions of plants, animals and the other things in nature.
The great man died, not unbecomingly, while investigating a report of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy.
Wealth of Nations
Several years ago, when I read John Landes’ magisterial The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998), Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (the Wealth of Nations, for short) loomed large in the background. Landes’ book seemed to be a series of updating footnotes to the older book. Its prose was strikingly delicious. The flavor remains in my mouth after all these years. When I was in secondary school, I elected not to take Economics as a subject. When recently I decided to get an education in Economics, I decided to start from the guy deemed to be the Father of Economics. The Wealth of Nations, though written almost a quarter of a millennium ago during the bubbling Scottish enlightenment era, is surprisingly very readable. In the book, he uses the word Political Economy to describe his subject rather than ‘Economics’. The concepts of ‘free market’ and ‘division of labour’ are clearly expounded in the book. And he doesn’t use the word ‘capitalism’. The book is based on qualitative and quantitative assessments of what people and countries did and making inferences therefrom rather than cajoling observations into pre-conceived models. And its quantitative analyses are based on simple arithmetic rather than calculus, statistical modeling and other paraphernalia of modern economics. He must have been influenced by the empiricism of his contemporary Hume, a major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Learning that the guy was actually trained as a philosopher, I quickly devoured his major philosophical work A Theory of Moral Sentiments which reads like a blend between moral philosophy and psychology. In both books, the great man presents his ideas with great clarity, no frills; unlike the enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon to whom literary style is as important as the message to be delivered.
Smith was a moral philosopher who decided to address issues of political economy and vastly succeeded in his task as history has testified. If Edward Gibbon was the Enlightenment historian, Smith was the Enlightenment economist.
John Landes was both a historian and an economist in the modern sense of both terms and his book is highly recommended.
Two books by Leslie Hazleton
I first encountered LH when a friend posted a TED talk video of her in which she eloquently and admirably talked about her experience ‘reading the Qur’an’. Of course, that wasn’t the first time a non-Muslim was waxing lyrical about the uncommon linguistic beauty and poetic elegance of the Qur’an; but as a TED talk topic in these Islamophobic times? That was something else.
It led me to search on the internet for this agnostic Jewish journalist-turned theologist and historian. I found she had actually written a biography of the Prophet as well as a best-selling account of the earliest schism in the history of Islam – the forking out of the faith into the Sunni and Shi’i streams. She also has a blog called the Accidental Theologist.
After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam
This ought to have come after the biography of the Prophet, chronologically speaking. But her interest in the doctrinal schism led her inevitably back to the lifetime of the Prophets when the pollens of the future split were already floating the air. I read them in the order in which they were published. And it was not deliberate. The expectedly more ‘topical’ of the two beckoned first. It’s indeed inevitable that the main protagonists in this story are our master, the Commander of the Faithful Ali ibn Abi Talib and our mother Aisha, the beloved of the Prophet. The other companions and their followers only make more or less cameo appearances in proportion to their historical roles in the events. She wades into the doctrinally controversial waters without the inexorable partisanship of even the most objective Muslim scholars. She writes with the perspective of a doctrinal outsider driven by the passion to know ‘what exactly happened’ given what can be pieced together from Sunni and Shi’i sources, coloured as they are by sectarian inclinations and biases. Of course, she doesn’t reveal any new facts but it is absolutely refreshing to read her account as it points up afresh the intellectual tyranny of historical orthodoxy on one hand and how a sense of persecution can lead people farther afield than the actual facts would allow on the other.
It is of especial interest that she pays homage to at-Tabari and acknowledges her indebtedness to him in writing the book. The Persian at-Tabari is unequivocally classified on the Sunni side by the Shi’ah even as they use his magisterial historical tomes as ammunition in their polemics against the Ahl-us-Sunnah. On the other hand, later Sunni scholars have accused him of Shi’ite leanings as reported by adh-Dhahabi somewhere in his multi-volume biographical encyclopaedia (Siyar a’laam an-nubalaa’). And in his specific entry on at-Tabari, he writes that the historian has a ‘harmless shi’ism’. This is a muted allusion to the understated pro-Alid streak that exists in Islam outside formal Shi’ism; a tendency that goes back to the staunchly pro-Alid companions – Salman al Farisi, Miqdad, Abu Dharr, and Ammar ibn Yasir. But nobody would stigmatize these blessed companions as Shi’ites. In a similar vein is another subtle streak in Islam critical of the third caliph and a lofty companion of the Prophet – Uthman ibn Affan. Many companions were openly critical of his rule, including our mother Aisha who raised her voice against him in the mosque during a khutbah. Likewise, Ali, Talhah, and Zubair. This streak, as long as history continues to be studied, will probably continue to occur outside formal Shi’ism. The major deterrent is the fear of being labelled a Shi’ite as happened in the case of Sayyid Qutb who had to retract in a later edition what he had written about Sayyiduna Uthman in the first edition of his Islam and Social Justice. Just as prudential dissimulation (taqiyya) has historically undermined inter-denominational discourse between Shi’is and Sunnis, the fear of being tainted with the brush of Shi’ism prevents a historical-critical approach among Sunni Muslims with regard to our early history. Sleeping dogs should remain prostrate. Since we were lucky not to be alive in the days of the fitnah, Allah has saved our hands getting stained with the blood of the pious predecessors; we should not stain our tongues by speaking ill of the dead. But Leslie Hazleton was not held back by any such pious sentiments.
The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad
For a book like this to come from a non-Muslim, the author must have a good dose of empathy without necessarily being sympathetic. She relies on the biographical accounts written by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. She ‘purifies’ the Muslim account of theology and hagiography and winnows off the non-Muslims’ needless antagonism. She succeeds in creating a very human portrayal of the great Prophet without making him pedestrian. She manages to do this because she has a sense of his greatness, his uniqueness. And because she is an agnostic rather than an atheist. She applies her training in psychology to offer new insights into the personality of the Prophet. She does all this with a poet’s imagination and the narrative deftness of a novelist